With the release of Bic Runga’s fourth studio album Belle and an Australian tour penciled in for May, Same Same caught up with the New Zealand native for a chat about music, mentors and how motherhood made her consider giving up making music for good.
For elfin New Zealand folk-pop songstress Bic Runga, almost six years away from any form of making music felt “at once like a lifetime and not very long at all.”
With her emotive, crystalline voice, 36-year-old Runga has spent the last 15 years quietly building a solid career crafting the sort of gorgeous songs that worm their way into the listener’s consciousness and then linger there.
She’s worked with some of the biggest names in the business – Neil and Tim Finn and Leonard Cohen among them – and toured the world, living in Paris, London and New York along the way.
Still, when Runga gave birth to her son, Joe, almost six years ago, she says that she “very seriously” considered abandoning her career as a musician. Both her pregnancy and the first few years of motherhood resulted in what she describes as “a kind of musical wasteland.”
Despite great critical acclaim and commercial success, Runga admits that, as she struggled with the myriad day-to-day demands of first-time parenting, she found herself wondering if she’d ever return to singing and songwriting.
“I would put my son down to sleep and sometimes I’d be there, beside him, and that would be the only downtime that I had, the only quiet time. Sometimes that made me panic a little bit and other times I would think: I’ve played a gig where Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin was in the audience and I’ve been singing onstage and there’s Neil Finn, playing in my band, as my pianist. So, really, if that was it, if it was over, I would have gone out on a pretty high note,” Runga confesses.
Since releasing her debut album Sway in 1996, Runga has been honoured with a plethora of awards. That album went triple platinum in New Zealand and gold in Australia. It also launched her career in North America, where she toured extensively as part of Sarah McLachlan’s all-female music festival, Lilith Fair in the mid-to-late 90s.
Both 2002’s dark pop-oriented Beautiful Collision and 2005’s exquisitely minimalist Birds mirrored that success. She was invited to perform with musicians as disparate as the Finn brothers, Dave Dobbyn, Radiohead and Wilco. In early 2006, Runga was also made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List.
“Oh, look, I can laugh about it now, but I was very torn.”
“That was lovely and also very strange. I was delighted, but that was odd. Oh, look, I can laugh about it now, but I was very torn. I had an almost non-existent musical libido! There was this part of me that was very much caught up in that strange combination of terror and joy that being a mother brings and, really, I had no desire to make music,” Runga reflects, laughing self-deprecatingly.
“It was an effort to get back to it because my time was so divided, being a new mum. It takes so much self-motivation and I think, every now and then, you really run the risk of that creative fire being extinguished if you don’t have the time or the desire to feed your intellect, to feed your inspiration, to make sure you’re inspired and the creative fires are really burning.”
After such a long break from writing and recording, Runga says she realised that “a huge change to the process of how I was doing it all was necessary.”
Having not written or recorded in five years, she says she decided to “mix it up and really test myself.” That test came in the form of something she jokingly calls “musical speed dating.”
“It was very much like that. I very quickly realised that I needed to change the process. I needed to collaborate with people. I needed different energy. I needed a different process. And the solution to that, in the end, was really just to work with a bunch of very different musicians with very different approaches,” Runga recalls.
“I did realise, however, that that was also a really scary thing to do. Because I didn’t know these people and there is something disquieting and a little bit scary and icky, really, about going into a room or a studio with somebody, baring your soul, sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings, and then trying to write a song with them when, really, you don’t know each other.”